Fussy child doesn't want to eat food

Fussy eating (also known as picky, choosy or faddy eating) is defined as an unwillingness to eat familiar foods or to try new foods, as well as having a strong food preferences. This often leaves a very anxious, distressed parent who’s concerned about poor nutrient intake and an inadequate diet for their little one. The frustration of mealtimes with a fussy eater can also result in parents “giving in”, which teaches many children the art of manipulation and to use food to control their parents.

The good news is that most toddlers outgrow fussy eating and end up eating a wide variety of nutritious foods. In the meantime, follow the tips below to help overcome some of your common frustrations with mealtimes.

“Studies have shown that we may need to offer the same food up to 10 times before a child accepts it, so continue to offer the foods they don’t like over again in different shapes and forms.”

What causes picky/fussy eating?

Several factors may contribute to fussy eating such as age, personality, gender, social influences, culture, willingness to try foods, parental practices, the pressure to eat, feeding styles and environment. The important thing to determine is whether fussy eating is a behaviour or if there’s perhaps a medical reason.

Typical medical reasons for not eating could be that your child is sick, anaemic, has reflux or swallowing difficulties – even constipation can result in fussy eating. It can generally be overcome but if you’re concerned that your child isn’t growing or is faltering from their growth curve then it’s best to chat to your paediatrician and consult with a registered dietitian.

Toddler girl crying at table about food

What should parents avoid doing?

Studies have shown that putting too much pressure on our children to eat certain foods can make the situation worse. Restricting certain foods also aggravates the situation and often children tend to want that restricted food even more. We should try not to make eating a negative experience by arguing or fighting, and nagging has also been shown to negatively affect appetite. We should also refrain from rewarding or bribing children with food and rather try as much as possible to teach our little ones to have a healthy relationship with food.

What are some tips or tricks to overcome fussy or picky eating?

  • The first rule is to continue to offer your child a wide variety of healthy foods (including the ones they don’t like). Try and make the food interesting and appealing with lots of variety in colour.
  • Studies have shown that we may need to offer the same food up to 10 times before a child accepts it, so continue to offer the foods they don’t like over again in different shapes and forms. It also helps to pair foods that they don’t like with ones that they do.
  • Stick to family foods. Offer your child the same food that the rest of the family is eating and avoid preparing different foods just for your child. Parents should set a good example of eating healthy foods without making a big deal about the foods they don’t like.

Peas, carrot and cucumber used in a smiley face

  • Remove distractions at mealtimes (television, iPads, games) and try and eat meals at the table as a family so that children learn by example and establish healthy eating habits. Mealtimes should be calm and positive and can present an opportunity for children to learn about food.
  • Involve your children in food preparation and mealtimes. This can be something as simple as helping to lay the table for dinner or helping with the preparation of food (under supervision). It often sparks an interest in eating food if they have taken part in the preparation of it.

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  • Engage in fun activities that include food. Teach your children about food through baking, cooking, grocery shopping or fun activities such as icing biscuits, for example.
  • Try messy play. Messy play involves using food to teach little ones to be comfortable with touching new and interesting textures. Often some of the food ends up in their mouth too. Examples: jelly, mashed potato, custard, coloured spaghetti, coloured rice or edible playdough.
  • Finger foods: Depending on your child’s age, finger foods may give smaller babies a sense of independence compared to being fed with a spoon.

Finger foods in a lunchbox for snacks

  • Limit drinks/liquid before or with meals. Too much liquid before or with a meal can fill up little tummies and result in them eating less food. Soft drinks and fruit juices should also be avoided for health reasons but also because they can affect appetite.
  • Give your child the power of choice. For example, allow them to choose between two different fruits or one of two different vegetable options. This gives them a sense of self-control and independence.
  • Have a routine in place. Have set mealtimes and snacks to set the scene and allow your child to feel secure and know what to expect.

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  • The most important advice is not to substitute and offer other foods when your child refuses a meal. Rather wait until the next mealtime to offer something else. When we bring out different options at the same meal the child will learn this behaviour and it will encourage them to be picky.
  • Re-enforce good behaviour. Praise your child when they finish their food – but don’t reward with unhealthy foods!

Most importantly, stay calm and collected around food and mealtimes as children can pick up on your energy. You’ve got this, mommy!

Kelly Ansley, registered dietitian
Kelly is a registered dietitian and owner of Smart Eating Registered Dietitians Kelly is a registered dietitian in private practice. She gained valuable experience in the government and private sector before starting her own practice, ‘Smart Eating’, in 2015. She is currently a guest lecturer to the third-year dietetics students at the University of Pretoria and consults from practices in Houghton and Fourways and Morningside Mediclinic. Since becoming a mom in 2019, Kelly feels passionate about educating and informing other moms on nutrition-related topics and empowering them to provide a healthy balanced diet for the whole family. Kelly understands the stress and pressure that come with being a working mom and she supports her clients and assists them to achieve sustainable health goals. In her private capacity, Kelly enjoys baking, travelling and spending time with family and friends.